Accelerated by Sturgis Rally, COVID-19 infections go fast, far


The hundreds of thousands of bikers who attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have left western South Dakota, but public health departments in several states are trying to measure how far and how fast the coronavirus is spreading. spreads in bars, tattoo shops and gatherings before people get home. to almost every state in the country.

From the town of Sturgis, which conducts mass testing for its roughly 7,000 residents, to health departments in at least six states, health officials are trying to track outbreaks in the 10-day rally that has taken place. completed August 16. to track down an invisible virus that spread among bar-hoppers and gatherers, who then traveled to more than half of the counties in the United States.

An analysis of anonymous cell phone data from Camber Systems, a company that aggregates cell phone business for health researchers, found that 61% of all counties in the United States were visited by someone who attended Sturgis, creating a travel hub comparable to a large American city.


Bikers walk down Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Saturday August 15, 2020 in Sturgis, SD (Amy Harris / Invision / AP)

“Imagine trying to find contacts for the whole city of (Washington), DC, but you also know you have no distance, or the distance is very, very limited, hiding is limited,” said Navin Vembar, who co-founded Camber Systems. “All of this creates a very dangerous situation for people everywhere. Contact tracing becomes extremely difficult. ”

Health departments in four states, including South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wyoming, reported a total of 81 cases among people who attended the rally. South Dakota health officials said Monday they had received reports of infections from residents of two other states – North Dakota and Washington. The health ministry has also issued public warnings about possible exposure to COVID-19 at five businesses popular with bikers, saying it does not know how many people may have been exposed.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, has defied calls to cancel large gatherings and opposes demands to wear masks. She welcomed the event, which in previous years generated around $ 800 million in tourism spending, according to the state’s tourism ministry.

“I sat at a bar shoulder to shoulder with guys. No one was wearing a mask, ”said Stephen Sample, a rally that returned to Arizona last week.

He had gone to a bar where health officials then issued warnings – One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon – but said he had not shown any symptoms of COVID-19. He discussed the quarantine with his wife after his return, but decided not to.

In a country where each state has been tasked with doing the heavy lifting to respond to the pandemic, tracking every infection since the gathering is next to impossible. But the town of Sturgis is doing what it can to prevent a local epidemic by organizing mass testing for asymptomatic people.

The city, which is a sleepy tourist destination for most of the 355 days of the year outside of rally dates, has been a reluctant host this year. After many residents objected to the massive influx of people during a pandemic, city leaders decided to pay for mass testing with the money they had received from federal funding. relief against coronaviruses.

On Monday morning, Linda Chaplin drove with her husband to line up for the mass test event in the parking lot of the Sturgis Community Center. They had left town during the rally, but the crowds that showed up before and after the event concerned them so they decided to get tested.

While the test results will take a few days to process, the region is already seeing an increase in coronavirus cases.

“For a long time, people were like, ‘Well, do you know someone who has COVID?’ and I would say, “No, I don’t, but I watch the news,” “said Chaplin. Now I know some of the people we’ve heard from have COVID. ”

While Chaplin said people she knew who had been infected did not attend the rally, she said many locals were relieved that it was over.

“Once you get your town back and the rally is over, it feels like the end of summer is approaching, school is starting,” she said.

The local school district has delayed the start of in-person classes this year in hopes it would give health officials time to contain an outbreak. The city has also made coronavirus tests available for school staff, in addition to requiring city employees to get tested.


Although the city has organized 1,300 available tests, around 850 people have signed up for tests so far, according to Danial Ainslie, the city manager.

Some residents, like Eunice Peck, were not concerned about the potential for an outbreak. She rented her house to gatherers to earn extra money. She had avoided the crowds that flooded downtown and hadn’t felt the need to take a test.

“It’s a very good thing for the city,” Peck said of the rally.

But events like Sturgis concern health experts, who see infections growing regardless of city and state boundaries. Without a nationally coordinated screening and testing system, containing infections in a scenario like Sturgis is “nearly impossible,” said Dr Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who worked in the Department of Health. and social services under former President Barack Obama.

“We would need a finely orchestrated national system and we are far from it,” he said. “We’re really seeing a 50-state effort, all going in different directions right now.”

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, on Friday advised people to self-quarantine for two weeks if they attended the rally.


She said: “We expect to see many more cases associated with Sturgis.”


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